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Lessons From A Corny Childhood

By the time I reached adolescence, we'd moved to a house ... with a huge backyard. Every year, [Dad] planted more and more of it with vegetables. Like many children of gardeners, I failed to appreciate the bounty.

There's nothing like plowing a garden in full view of the neighborhood kids to cast a pall on your preteen quest for popularity. My sister and I viewed our father's garden as one big summertime chore -- weeding mostly, although one ghastly summer he found an old hand tiller and hitched us up to it.

Dad grew up on a farm in northwestern Montana. He left after high school and spent his career as a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, but at heart he remained a farm boy. Spring to fall, he spent his weekends in the garden, planting, growing and harvesting vegetables and fruit. Plump peas, viridian beans, earthy potatoes, luscious tomatoes and even tiny strawberries graced our dinner table during my childhood. By the time I reached adolescence, we'd moved to a house in suburban Salt Lake City, with a huge backyard. Every year, he planted more and more of it with vegetables. Like many children of gardeners, I failed to appreciate the bounty.

If anything made our garden toil worth it, though, it was the corn. Dad staggered his corn planting, starting three or four rounds of a few rows each, several weeks apart, so we had corn all summer long. Picking it was the only part of gardening I actually liked.

Invariably, Mom served Dad's corn still on the cob, boiled in salted water for eight minutes. Why do anything else with corn so fresh it was growing in the afternoon and buttered and salted on our plates by dinnertime?

Native to the New World, corn was a dietary staple for numerous early American cultures, including the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas. The earliest European settlers quickly adopted it as a mainstay as well, although most of it was dried and ground into meal for cakes, breads and porridge (and, of course, fermented into whiskey).

Unlike the varieties grown for popcorn, flour and milled products such as grits or cornmeal, "sweet corn" -- what Americans eat as a vegetable -- is picked and eaten before it matures. This variety stores a higher percentage of sugar than starch; once picked, the sugar starts to convert to starch and the corn tastes less sweet. Although the grocery-store corn you're buying wasn't just harvested, today's varieties are bred with more sugar content to start, so even older ears will still taste sweet.

At the farm stand or the supermarket, you'll often see people tearing back the husk to examine the corn inside, perhaps testing it with a thumbnail to see how tender it is. Such intrusions are bad form. Besides, it's not necessary if you know what to look for. Both the husks and the silk (if attached) should be supple and fresh, neither dried out nor wet and slimy. The ears should be heavy. Wrap your hand around the corn and give it a squeeze -- the kernels inside should be resilient, and fill the husk to the top. If there's a big gap under the silk, chances are the corn is beginning to dry out. I usually boil the ears (5 to 8 minutes in salted water), but they're great roasted or grilled as well.

If you want to eat the corn off the cob, there are several tools available to separate kernel from cob. If you have to strip lots of corn, it's probably worth buying one, but all you really need is a sharp knife and a large shallow bowl. Cut the stem end off so the base is flat. Stand the ear up on the flat end in the bowl and cut down in rows, turning the cob until all the kernels are removed. The bowl will make the last bit of each row a bit difficult, but without the bowl, corn kernels will fly everywhere, and you'll be picking them up from behind the stove or under the refrigerator for months. Trust me on this.

When I left home, the garden and the plowing yoke for the wider world, I discovered two things: First, not all corn was like our corn; and second, you could do more than eat it straight off the cob.

On or off the cob, corn goes well with chilies, tomatoes, shellfish, fresh herbs such as cilantro and basil, and intense spices such as cumin and smoked paprika. I was introduced to creamed corn that was nothing like the goopy stuff in cans. I discovered that corn's sweetness could cool and balance a spicy salsa and that its starch could provide body for a rich, creamy soup. All are excellent ways to use this versatile vegetable, even if it isn't as perfect as the corn of my youth.

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Janet A. Zimmerman